In thinking about our political world, whether in Africa, the United States or Asia, we often adopt a “binary” view of the world, one that tends to make us think that there are only two positions, on and off.
We tend to think in terms of the state (politics, the public sphere and bureaucracy) and the private sector (markets, commerce and private life); government and citizens are deemed public, economic markets and consumers are private. Laws and taxes and policing are what the state does; shopping and art and prayers are what we do in our private lives. The state is about the legitimate control of power (this is the essence of “sovereignty”) while the private individual sector is where we are free from state power (this is the essence of “personal freedom.”)
In fact, many of our activities and communities and behaviors don’t really fit neatly into such public/private dichotomies. We think of religion as private at least when it is not an established religion or controlled by a state; however, members of religious faith communities know that their beliefs and practices are communal (and hence public) not just something they do as individuals. There may be “private schools”, but education has broad community implications and all education has a public character. There seem to be many things that are public without being political or part of the state. We often feel we are exercising our liberty in ways and in places that are not simply private, but rather communal-done in and for the community.
For these reasons, perhaps it makes more sense to think about democratic societies as standing not on two but on three legs—on a tripod. Yes, we can think about those activities that belong to a state public sector and those that belong to an individual private sector. But we also know that between these two lies a civil society sector that is not controlled by the state but is a public “place”; that is, it is free without being private.
In this third sector, sometimes called the “independent sector”, we find religion, schools, clubs, associations, non-governmental, non-profit organizations, labor unions and many other forms of associated life that are public without being governmental. In different cultures the size and scope of civil society may differ. France has a large state sector and is less focused on civil associations, philanthropies and other non-governmental groups. The United States has a long history of strong civic associations. In some countries, civil society is more closely tied to the state because law requires that they be state-sponsored or state approved. In others, there may be tribal or communal groups that could be seen as civil society associations but are not described that way.
We can argue about where this or that form of association belongs: Is a business corporation part of the private market sector, or does it belong in civil society? Are political parties a feature of government and hence of the state or are they civil society associations where we prepare to participate in politics? Does an Afghan or Kenyan clan or tribe represent an extension of the “private” family, or is it the beginning of a more public “civil society” association?
But whether or not organizations are deemed to be part of the civic sector or not does not invalidate it, rather it suggests that human association is evolving and multi-dimensional; not always easy to define. Indeed, the tripod of sectors we are looking at (state, civil society, private) overlap and intersect; they are not wholly distinct or autonomous. They reflect the interdependence of our common lives, and help us see some of the ways in which we live both together and apart, publicly as well as privately, but often somewhere in between. Above all, thinking about our lives in terms of three rather than two sectors is necessary because it turns out that many of the most important things we do take place in the third sector.
Loving your family is private and individual, making laws is public and a function of the state. But playing, learning, praying, working, creating art and culture, pursuing common purposes, organizing for political work and many other activities we undertake together in communities are all part of a public yet autonomous non-governmental life of free association. This life of free association that we call civil society turns out to be necessary to democracy; indeed, it is its very essence.
This article is part of a series of articles from ‘The New Rwanda: Prosperity and the Public Good’ by Sondra Myers.